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Language, Race and Power: Presentation and Discussion with an Audience

By Ishauna Cox

Published: October 18th, 2017

“Language is a living thing. We can feel it changing. Parts of it becomes old: they drop off and are forgotten. New pieces bud out, spread into leaves, and become big branches, proliferating.”

                     -Gilbert Highet

Dr. Jamila Lyiscott and Ishauna Cox. PHOTO/ Ishauna Cox
Dr. Jamila Lyiscott and Ishauna Cox. PHOTO/ Ishauna Cox

Professor Jamila Lyiscott, Ph.D., spoke to the students of Brooklyn College on Tuesday, October 10th in an Ingersoll Hall classroom during common hours; the discussion’s topic delved into the complex entity of language. Standard English has often been used as a tool to enforce a social and intellectual hierarchy, which affects numerous groups of individuals that may not culturally submit nor adhere to it. “Over 84% of urban educators are not people of color,” Lyiscott said, “and live outside the racially diverse communities their students reside.”

Lyiscott is currently a visiting assistant professor of Social Justice Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, whilst serving as an affiliate faculty member of the W.E.B. DuBois Afro American Studies Department. Adding to her accomplishments, Lyiscott has also been named a Senior Research Fellow of Teachers College, Columbia University’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME).  

“Every semester that I teach educators on topics ranging from diversity, to racial justice, to literacy in urban school,” Lyiscott said, “I’m ensured to include a unit on the art of the cypher; a practice within hip-hop culture with West African roots. Essentially, it’s a circle of people, who come together to share in extemporaneous freestyle or purely written ideas over a beat.”

Hip-hop and its influence, mainly on speech, has always been condemned and ostracized within mainstream and the standard English vernacular, often leading to judgement and negative categorization of those who speak in Ebonics. Lyiscott sheds light on the fact that those who suffer condemnation are usually people of color, especially black people. She is trying to break this cycle. What stood out during the lecture was Lyiscott’s declining of attendees raising their hands to speak. What this translated to was that she did not want the audience to feel as though permission was need to have each voice heard.

Speech, the hierarchy of language and race, is often intertwined and that leads to a dangerous path to segregation; it isn’t a form that divides externally via physical presence, but one that divides through the lack of understanding of intellect and its complexities. Lyiscott dared to ask, “How many of your students have you labeled illiterate by societal standards?” Youths of color who fail to relinquish their unorthodox ways of expressing themselves via writing and language are often made to feel ill-equipped, misunderstood and intellectually insecure.

Within our society, we tend to fixate on grammar and speech to the point where voices are policed and silenced. Lyiscott shared a story of her experience as a nineteen-year-old college student, sitting on a panel when a white woman stood and told her that she was “so articulate.” She expressed her deep offense to the woman’s comments, concluding that, “at the intersection of race and language that allowed this woman to make an assessment about who I was and what I was worth.”

Subcategories of English, such as African-American Vernacular English and dialects such as Jamaican Patois, gives individuals the space to speak in a way they feel comfortable and often allows them to showcase their abilities to navigate between different types of English. However, this ability is often unknown or bastardized. With this hierarchy of English and the power it has to measure a person’s intelligence comes the depletion and removal of one’s comfort in his or her culture and its effect it has on his or her identity and speech.

Students who attended the lecture have very interesting opinions on what was said. Education major Donna Granville’s perspective as a person of color was, “There’s definitely a power hierarchy in the English language and in that we subjugate certain people to use an English in a way that we deem appropriate and acceptable.”

She goes on to say, “By the way they use English says that they are articulate, says that they are worthy of access into institution whether that be education, or getting a job in some part of the economy. The command of English in this country says more about you than what degrees are behind your name or what level of education you’ve gotten. So yes, it is definitely a power hierarchy that makes it problematic.” She also felt as though she would be judged as a black woman if she were to speak outside of standard English. “There is a judgement that comes from that. There’s a level of frustration that there are people who will perceive me as not intellectual or smart enough if I’m not using the English language the way the United States like it.”

"I started thinking more about the idea of value which I didn't really consider previous to today." - Leeza Torres. PHOTO/ Ishauna Cox
“I started thinking more about the idea of value which I didn’t really consider previous to today.” – Leeza Torres. PHOTO/ Ishauna Cox

Leeza Torres, an English major, felt that as person of color, her culture is “definitely erased” by the English language: “Because the idea that my culture isn’t valuable so ‘lets leave it outside the school door.’” Vincent Andreassi felt that the lecture reinforced “certain ideas” he had upon becoming familiar with cyphers. “I’ve been learning more about language and linguistics and encountering people talking about some of the things Jamila was taking about and legitimizing those dialects and those groups that have been marginalized by how they talk.”

This discussion on language and the power structure that engulfs it is not only thought provoking but well needed considering the climate in which we are currently living in. Lyiscott brought a fresh perspective on more than just speech; she brought a new perspective on how we view other humans and how we subconsciously add value or devalue them on the basis of language alone. As a black American woman of Jamaican descent, I take pride in the unique speech that is spoken within my cultures and the power it gives me to be versatile linguistically and artistically.  Granville said it best: “One of the things that is so great about this talk and people who do this kind of work is that they empower you to realize that all aspects of you are valuable”, and if this hierarchy is not deconstructed, “you’re going to rob people of the beauty they can produce.”

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One comment

  1. I’m so proud of my daughter Ishauna, on a job well done. #PROUDMAMA

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